Knot of the Soul Book Event: Encountering the Invisible

This post comes to us from Ali Altaf Mian, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University. His review essay on Knot of the Soul, forthcoming in qui parle, particularly considers how Pandolfo inhabits the “ethics of psychoanalysis” and the citational status of the Qur’an in her ethnography.

Say (O Muhammad): It has been revealed to me that a company of the Jinn gave ear [to the Qur’an], and they said: Lo! We have heard a marvelous Qur’an.

—Qur’an 72:1.

DJINN: according to the Muslim conception bodies (adjsam) composed of vapour or flame, intelligent, imperceptible to our senses, capable of appearing under different forms and of carrying out heavy labours (al-Baydawi, Comm. to Kur’an, LXXII, 1; al-Damiri, Hayawan, s.v. djinn). They were created of smokeless flame (Kur’an, LV, 14) while mankind and the angels, the other two classes of intelligent beings, were created of clay and light. They are capable of salvation; Muhammad was sent to them as well as to mankind; some will enter Paradise while others will be cast into the fire of hell.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, 2:546-7.

Their speech is an incised shape of silence, an intaglio,
in which the word is not a single, schisted bloc
of sense, like ours, but guards its pristine
opacity and is impossible
for any dragoman to approximate.

—Eric Ormsby, “The Jinn.”

Possession-form identities in dissociative identity disorder typically manifest as behaviors that appear as if a “spirit,” supernatural being, or outside person has taken control, such that the individual begins speaking or acting in a distinctly different manner. For example, an individual’s behavior may give the appearance that her identity has been replaced by the “ghost” of a girl who committed suicide in the same community years before, speaking and acting as though she were still alive. Or an individual may be “taken over” by a demon or deity, resulting in profound impairment, and demanding that the individual or a relative be punished for a past act, followed by more subtle periods of identity alteration. However, the majority of possession states around the world are normal, usually part of spiritual practice, and do not meet criteria for dissociative identity disorder. The identities that arise during possession-form dissociative identity disorder present recurrently, are unwanted and involuntary, cause clinically significant distress or impairment…and are not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice.

—American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition

What does it mean to assume a subject position in the context of the ‘therapies of the jinns’?

—Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 87.

The invisible figures of jinns populate Muslim-majority societies. They come up not only in Qur’anic verses that report of their astonishment at Muhammad’s recitation of sacred writ but also in folk tales that portray them as paranormal parasites that possess or perturb bodies but especially brains. The idea of the jinn, living beings that many Muslims hold to be invisible to human perception, indicates for many of us in the Western academy a limit of the ontological thinkable. To assume that jinns are real existents, to take them not as figures of fiction but of fact—of veridicality—flies in the face of “enlightened man.”

For some time, religious studies scholars have debated how to account for the epistemological discrepancy between their own grounding in the critique of Truth, if not in historical and natural positivism, and the alternative grounds of belief nourished by the discursive and non-discursive practices of the persons and places they study. Scholars have designed and deployed a number of interpretive modalities and explanatory figures to make space for the claims of their subjects of study. Let me mention two noteworthy efforts in this regard: Amy Hollywood’s distinction between the real and the true vis-à-vis the politics of critique and Robert Orsi’s reclamation of “presence” (as in the really-being-there of the supernatural and the spiritual) as ethnographically observable. I find both Hollywood and Orsi instructive as well as effective authors to start discussion and stir debate in the classroom.

Yet, there remains, at least for me, an impasse within religious studies: At the end of the day, or at the beginning of the night, what do we do with supernatural figures? How might we critically encounter belief in deities that transcend the here and now without reducing this type of belief to illusion? Do we “respect” the faithful and withhold critique of their worlds, and instead practice the hermeneutics of generosity and embody epistemological humility? However, do not such positions feign tolerance, and might they serve to reinforce the critical authority of the scholar? At this impasse, Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul offers a fresh perspective and a useful methodology that in my view expand the recuperative potentials of suspicion and critique. In what follows, I take the jinn as a case study in order to draw attention to the importance of engaging with Pandolfo’s new monograph, particularly for the student of religion.

We encounter jinns in various sections of Pandolfo’s ethnography in Morocco: in reports of patients such as Hadiya and Amina whose narratives resist the idea of jinn possession, in Said’s words about “crossing” and “burning,” and in the “curing” practices of a scholar-cum-therapist we know as the Imam in Knot of the Soul. Pandolfo neither overemphasizes jinns in these accounts nor romanticizes the alternative forms of reasoning modelled by her interlocutors. Both of these interpretive gestures are crucial, as not every experience of madness in Muslim-majority societies is reducible to jinn-possession. Moreover, over-emphasizing belief in jinns and practices associated with the jinn might serve to further place Islam and Muslims in the territory of alterity. Likewise, sometimes those seen as “mad” by their social orders do not disown reason altogether. At times, reason and order assume the form of sanctuary and safety for those living with psychic and subjective postures deemed “mad” by scientific experts and state bureaucrats. After all, who has the social privilege to romanticize madness?

Pandolfo’s ethnography is careful in this regard, for it maintains the degree of alterity claimed by her interlocutors but also shows their complex relations to and positions within the self-same logics of contemporary governance, market processes, and cultural formations. Pandolfo takes as axiomatic that a certain experience of encountering the jinn is already within the folds of the type of psyches we are, as elaborated painstakingly by various strands of psychoanalysis (especially Freudian and Lacanian). The recognition of this openness toward other and others’ alterities within the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” but especially modelling the capacity to wield this critical hermeneutic in politically and ethically sensitive ways, are the key methodological resources of Knot of the Soul. In other words, Pandolfo does not turn suspicion against itself, but rather shows that within the brand of suspicion attributed to Sigmund Freud there lurks an alterity that jinns, too, can possess as their own, albeit with the help of skilled translators who dare to cross cultural and conceptual barriers. Let me explain what I mean by recourse to an illustration from Pandolfo’s ethnography.

In the book’s first section, we read of the psychiatric hospital, particularly of Hadiya, a patient who has turned to this institution after becoming dismayed by traditional modes of curing madness. Pandolfo acknowledges two “academic” demystifications of such experiences and phenomena: the physiatrist who understands the failure of “a cultural origin turned lethal” as “anecdotal imagery of a psychotic symptomatology” (57) and the anthropologist who takes it “as the expression of an ambivalence toward the sacred within the culture” (58). However, she claims that these two modes of explanation “efface the historical dimension of the phantasm—its being blurred with reality—as well as the experience of the subject’s despair” (58). The phantasm, the jinn if you wish, is historical insofar as its status as a signifier, the citation and circulation of a certain meaning, results out of concrete practices and processes of representation. For those who are embedded within this representational matrix, jinn possession does happen and, moreover, it remains irreducible to psychiatric and anthropological “academic” categories.

My point is that Pandolfo is attentively careful in wielding psychoanalytical terminology. She understands very well that psychoanalysis has the dangerous capacity to become a master-discourse of universalist aspirations but she also affirms the value of its daring character to appreciate modes of subjectivity that defy scientific truth, historical time, and immanentist absolutism. This is why Pandolfo pursues the following line of argumentation: “It is necessary to consider these themes of predatory violence on the self, of imprisonment and bewitchment in the traditions sites of belonging, in a literal sense [Hadiya herself had dubbed violent the jinn and noted the failure of traditional “cures”]” (58). The next sentence is ingenious as it demonstrates the care and caution with which Pandolfo wields psychoanalytical terminology in explaining jinn possession: “They are imaginary experiences of the impossibility of symbolic reference, phantasmatic elaborations of a fundamental anguish specific to a historical condition” (58). This formulation translates into psychoanalytic lexicon how a Muslim theologian in contemporary Morocco might explain the experience of jinn possession (and we find many more examples of such translations in the book’s third section).

Pandolfo arrives at such formulations by raising questions that stimulate and sustain the rigorous thinking needed for cross-cultural and trans-epistemic translation. With reference to the jinn, she asks: “What does it mean to assume a subject position in the context of the ‘therapies of the jinns’?” The terse wording of Pandolfo’s question cuts at least two ways: first, she seeks the meanings assembled by those who inhabit a world in which certain ritualistic therapies presuppose the presence of jinns, entities whose ontological status in language is ambiguous because it is located at the threshold of the visible and the invisible, at the intersection of the symbolic and the real; second, Pandolfo asks those anthropologists, those students of culture, who are situated at a distance from worlds in which jinns are present, to consider what it means for them to be conscripted into such worlds as interlocutors, as witnesses, and in so considering to reflect on the ethics and politics of speaking about what is present and what is absent, to interrogate who gets to decide what is visible and what remains beyond sense-perception. The gesture to dismiss jinns as signs of many Muslims’ archaic metaphysics, their outdated picture of reality, might be sanctioned by some epistemologies that privilege the visible, yet we must acknowledge that this very gesture entails its own exclusionary politics. It is no secret that the determination of the present—what is presence, whose being counts, which histories circulate—is an exercise of power and an expression of value.

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